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Volume 8, Issue 5: Childer

A Gracious Continuum

Douglas Wilson

We are not born desiring God, but rather milk. The Apostle Peter of course points to this truth as a wonderful metaphor of grace. But let's go one step beyond this metaphor: when we consider the fact that we are born into the world completely helpless, dependent entirely on the common grace of milk, we also learn one of our first profound lessons in theology.

Certainly many do not learn the lesson. Born into a race of sinners, despite the milk and countless other presents, they do not want to learn the lesson. Millions of our race harden their hearts progressively from infancy on, daily seeking to repress the duty of gratitude we each constantly have toward God. But our helplessness at birth nonetheless reveals God's kindness to us, and it also indicates something else of great importance.
Truth is not primarily found through the autonomous reflections of trained philosophers. Rather, over weeks and years, a true understanding of the world is instilled by mothers who nurse, scrub, and scold, fathers who teach and discipline, playmates who laugh, fight, and readily forgive. When we reflect on the process that brought us to the point where we may turn to read some great work of theology, we should first recognize that we are designed and created by God to grow up into truth. The idea that we could ever dispassionately approach the search for truth with a ghostlike Cartesian spirit is an idea which dies hard. But it must die.
Temporal and chronological priority must be distinguished from logical priority. Far too many theologians have approached their science with the idea that we may only begin with a series of propositions from which we may deduce other truths. Thus many systematic theologies begin with the doctrine of God, from which many conclusions, including our various relations to Him, are deduced. Kept in perspective, this approach is good and necessary because it does point us to the foundation of all truth, the ultimacy of God. But when it is out of perspective, theology can begin to look like something out of Euclid, and divorced for some arbitrary reason from any useful application. Of course we cannot think about the world without abstract thought. But we can think abstractly without ever really connecting with the world in which God has placed us. A world of difference lies between a carpenter who notices that the parallel two by fours in his stud wall don't meet, and furthermore couldn't, and a geometrician who performs feats of prowess on the chalkdust-free chalkboard of his mind, and upon request can prove any number of detached absurdities.
In the providence of God, He did not start us out with detached propositions about Him; He began us with a mother's breast. We are creatures federally connected; true theology begins in the cradle and before. John leapt with joy in his mother's womb, and from the lips of nursing infants God has ordained praise--and this, not as a cute Kodak moment, but rather to silence the foe and the avenger.
A great need exists for Christians to begin to think through the ramifications of their faith in both a systematic and practical way. We must put off childish things and think like men. Christianity is a serious and demanding religion, and this includes the intellectual ramifications of that faith. However, part of mature thinking about the faith is the understanding that all mature thought grows out of immature thought, and that this process is gradual and continual. Wesley spoke well of the firstborn seraph trying to make sense of it all, but we are not like that privileged celestial being. Conceived in sin, speaking lies from the womb, trusting in God from the breast, our apportioned lot is very different.
When we have come of age, we should look back on the process and see that where we came from does not define who God is. God reveals Himself to the mature mind as ultimate and transcendent. Our experience does not contain Him or define Him. But His sovereign majesty does contain our experience. In Him we live and move and have our being. The God revealed in Scripture brought us up from nothing into the dim consciousness of life in the womb, then into the bright light and fluctuating temperatures outside, and then to the comforting milk, and then to the crawling around which soon bumps into authority, and then years later . . . theology proper.
As long as the world contains unbelievers, Christ's words in the Great Commission remain an imperative. The gospel is to be preached to every creature. But when men and women are brought into the church, and as these converts have children, the normal pattern is to bring those children up in the nurture and admonition of the Lord. Many children from evangelical homes lament the fact they do not have a flashy testimony--never rode with the Hell's Angels, never did cocaine, never slept around, never scrambled their brains with an egg whisk--and in a church where crisis conversion is considered the norm, children who have been nurtured and admonished, as the Lord required, may feel shortchanged and left out. Many children brought up in evangelical homes struggle with assurance of salvation for just this reason.
We rejoice for those brought out of darkness into light, but for those who go on to become theologians, the process is filled with a great deal of unlearning. For those children who have been covenant theologians from the high chair, the process is closer to one of continual learning.
You have a baby in your arms? Then sing him some hymns.

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